The enig­matic war


This is a splen­did time to re­mem­ber the First World War. It started 100 years ago this month with the June 28 shoot­ing of the Aus­trian arch­duke and his wife. By the end of the sum­mer, much of Europe was en­gaged in a war that lasted about four years, top­pled four em­pires, pre­cip­i­tated the com­mu­nist revo­lu­tion, cre­ated by fiat the mod­ern Mid­dle East, rec­og­nized Zion­ism, made the U.S. a world power and cost the lives of about 10 mil­lion fight­ing men. His­to­ri­ans are still try­ing to fig­ure out what hap­pened.

There are the­o­ries ga­lore — and an equal amount of fin­ger-point­ing. Ger­many was to blame, many in­sist. No, it was Aus­tria-Hun­gary or maybe Rus­sia. On the other hand, it could have been Ser­bia — or the rigid­ity of mo­bi­liza­tion plans, those damned rail­way sched­ules, the ro­man­tic in­san­ity of na­tion­al­ism run amok, the as­sured con­fi­dence that the cri­sis would pass (oth­ers had) or, in the minds of some, that the work­ing men of Europe would never kill one an­other so that the cap­i­tal­ists and the up­per classes would ben­e­fit. Lit­tle about the war made much sense.

World War I is usu­ally thought of as World War II’s lit­tle brother — less im­por­tant and far less col­or­ful. It lacks, above all, a mon­strous fig­ure such as Hitler or even Stalin. We like to per­son­al­ize these mat­ters and we are un­der­stand­ably fix­ated on evil. Han­nah Arendt said af­ter the Holo­caust that the ques­tion of evil was the ma­jor chal­lenge of our times. The con­cept was so pow­er­ful that it was later used by Ge­orge W. Bush as a rhetor­i­cal ne­ces­sity. To sell a war against Iraq, he turned it into a cru­sade against evil it­self — an “axis” of the thing, an im­pos­si­ble con­struc­tion out of an Escher draw­ing. Sad­dam Hus­sein may have been ruth­less, but in the pan­theon of evil, he was an un­der­achiever.

World War I lacked that es­sen­tial cin­e­matic in­gre­di­ent — a tent-pole fig­ure of mon­u­men­tal evil. The Ger­man kaiser was a war­mon­ger and a buf­foon, but hardly in the same league as a Ger­man leader who was to come later in the century. None of the other na­tional lead- ers at the time make the cut. The czar was an offthe-shelf au­to­crat, so was the Aus­trian em­peror, and the Ot­toman sul­tan didn’t fig­ure at all. This was a war about some­thing else — just as scary.

World War I was a war about con­fu­sion, com­plex­ity, trade, naval ar­ma­ments, many other fac­tors and, of course, na­tion­al­ism. It was a war about the pro­saic, about what hap­pened in minia­ture to this coun­try af­ter Sept. 11, 2001, when we went look­ing for a fight. It was a war of un­in­tended con­se­quences — of one step leading to an­other and then a kind of mad lust ris­ing up in the pop­u­lace. Once the war be­gan, it be­came hard to end. If there was evil present, it was in the souls of count­less men who wanted to kill per­fect strangers for rea­sons that are still ob­scure.

The sit­u­a­tion in the Mid­dle East is a bit like World War I. Iraq is break­ing apart, and its bor­der with Syria ex­ists only on maps. A Kur­dis­tan is in for­ma­tion. Jordan and Le­banon are en­dan­gered. The Is­raeli-Pales­tinian sit­u­a­tion is threat­en­ing to pro­duce real vi­o­lence. Three Is­raeli youths have been kid­napped from the West Bank; an­other has been killed near the Syr­ian bor­der. Egypt has re­turned to mil­i­tary rule. Libya tee- ters, Ye­men is at war with it­self and the once-mod­est Syr­ian up­ris­ing is the but­ter­fly that flapped its wings to pro­duce a hur­ri­cane.

Evil con­cerns us all. The ul­ti­mate in evil, the Holo­caust, stalks me con­stantly. I know what hap­pened. There­fore, I know what can hap­pen. I am some­times quick to urge ac­tion, to smother evil in its fetid crib. I thought Pres­i­dent Obama should have in­ter­vened in Syria. I still do. Now, though, the sit­u­a­tion has been folded in on it­self many times over, for­eign pol­icy as origami. Obama’s cau­tion serves us well here. This is not a cri­sis made by a man or even men. It is made by move­ments. It’s like a flu. The chal­lenge is to not make it worse.

World War I in­structs. Maybe its ori­gins will never be di­vined. Maybe its cause is in the men­tal­ity of men who are long gone and felt so keenly about mat­ters that now mean noth­ing to us. The search for evil in World War II is easy. The search for evil in World War I is harder. Maybe it ends where it be­gins — with us all.

Richard Co­hen is a writer with the Wash­ing­ton Post Writ­ers Group. He can be reached at co­henr@wash­

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